Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Guest Review: Network (1976)

by ScottDS

Contrary to popular belief, my personal top 10 list of movies doesn’t consist solely of John Landis comedies and Star Trek! There are actually a couple of real honest to God dramas on the list and Sidney Lumet’s classic media satire is one of them. Many consider the film ahead of its time, which is both a testament to the filmmakers and a sad comment on society today. (Though I’m as guilty as anyone else.)

The Plot

After learning that he only has two more weeks on the air due to low ratings, UBS news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) says he’s going to kill himself live on television. He’s subsequently fired but his friend Max Schumacher (William Holden), head of the news division, convinces the network brass to allow Beale a dignified exit. Back on the air, Beale goes into a fit, describing life as “bulls---,” and has to be dragged off the set. Naturally, this causes a spike in ratings and the brass decide to keep him on. This culminates in his famous “I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” speech. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), head of entertainment, manages to convince network exec Frank Hackett (Robert Duval) to slot the evening news under her division so she can develop it with Schumacher, with whom she begins an affair. She also develops a docudrama series featuring a radical terrorist group, the Ecumenical Liberation Army (a parody of the Symbionese Liberation Army).
The Howard Beale Show quickly becomes the highest-rated TV show in history. Max and Diana’s affair intensifies, causing Max to leave his wife. The affair doesn’t last as Max is eventually alienated by Diana’s emotional instability and obsession with work. Beale finds out that the conglomerate that owns UBS will be sold to a Saudi company, and encourages viewers to protest. The network brass are in a panic and Beale is taken to meet Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), head of the parent company, who preaches his “corporate cosmology” and persuades Beale to preach this new “evangel.” This causes ratings to sink but Jensen won’t allow the network to fire Beale. Instead, Christensen, Hackett, and the other brass decide to have him killed on the air by the ELA. And that’s exactly what happens. Howard Beale: “…the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”

What Draws Me to This Film

I was originally hesitant to review this film. It’s a bit above my pay grade! Sidney Lumet? He directed movies for adults! Paddy Chayefsky? He was a genius satirist! The characters in this movie use ten-cent words like “encroachment”! But here we are.
The actors are excellent. Chayefsky, Dunaway, and Finch (posthumously) won Oscars, Holden and Beatty were nominated, and Beatrice Straight won an Oscar for her five (!) minutes of screen time as Holden’s beleaguered wife. Holden’s famous speech might get all the attention but I absolutely love Beatty’s speech later in the film. It’s a force of nature and the scene is lit and shot in such a way that suggests Beatty’s character might be a higher power of some kind.

For anyone who’s interested in filmmaking (or knows anyone who’s interested), I highly recommend Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies. Lumet was never really known for any kind of visual style (i.e. he never wanted the audience to notice) but for this film, he and acclaimed cinematographer Owen Roizman (The French Connection, The Exorcist) decided that since the film was about corruption, they would “corrupt” the camera. The film is lit in a naturalistic style, and then gradually the lighting becomes more and more artificial until it looks like a commercial. The newscasts were shot in a real newsroom and look convincing, though I still can’t believe how primitive on-screen graphics looked back then.
[sigh] To be fair, the film can be a little shrill at times. It’s one of those movies where characters sometimes seem to talk at each other rather than to each other. And Kathy Cronkite (daughter of Walter) is cringeworthy in her brief scene as the ELA’s kidnapped heiress. The scenes with the ELA might come across as a little over the top but in a world where we treat a sex tape star as effing royalty, is it so hard to believe a network would follow a terrorist group around chronicling their horrendous deeds? Network executives will do anything for ratings.
What I find interesting is that the film holds up (an opinion shared by a vast majority of critics and viewers) but what does that say about our society? It’s eerily prescient in its portrayal of corporate media influence, larger than life media personalities peddling their wares to an (over)eager audience, and the idea of reality television. (And this was 20 years before the Internet came into our homes!) I find it ironic that, while we seem to be in a new “Golden Age” of television in terms of drama, we also seem to have sunk in terms of political discourse and making celebrities out of the dregs of humanity. Why pay for writers and sets when you can follow around a bunch of nobodies who can’t resist the lure of the bright lights? Why bother studying acting or filmmaking when all you have to do to be a star nowadays is produce cute cat videos or f--- some dude? And why send a news crew to the middle of nowhere for some hard-hitting investigation when it’s easier to bring on two talking heads to debate… and debate… and debate. And then one of them inevitably says something deemed “offensive” and the news story goes away; the news story is now the debate itself. And a week later, we’ve all forgotten about it.
This guy charts it better than I can: the typical news story lifecycle, complete with requisite outrage, outrage about the outrage, and reactions from politicians who have nothing to do with the story. (Paging Arahsay Alinpay.) Such is life in these United States. In the end, we can only hope that some kind of sea change occurs and that the intelligent and thoughtful will ultimately rise above the bloviation and hate. Sadly, there’s no money in it. And yes, the problem lies on both sides. It’s why, even as a moderate Independent, I can appreciate a conservative website like, say, Commentarama or The Federalist and decry the psycho ward that is Breitbart. And no, George Soros didn’t pay me to say that!

In his fiery speeches, Beale praised the strength of the individual and lamented what he saw as our collective dehumanization. But there’s another problem: our lack of discernment – when everything is important or revolutionary or offensive, then nothing is!

I hope we’re not too late.

“After living with you for the last six months, I'm turning into one of your scripts. Well, this is not a script, Diana. There's some real, actual life going on here.”
[+]

Monday, August 24, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

By Kit
Now we come to the penultimate film of Marvel's Phase One. This film, is not perfect, but it has a charm to it.

The Plot

The movie opens in the modern day with a group of SHIELD agents exploring the Arctic and discovering Captain America. We then flashback to about halfway through America’s involvement in World War 2 (c. Late-1942, early-1943)

The scrawny Steve Rogers is trying to join the war effort, going to recruitment centers all over the greater New York/Newark area —and is rejected by every single one of them. He is small, about 5 feet, has asthma, and an slew of health problems. He also gets into fights with bullies, never backing down but only failing to get the snot beat out of him because of the intervention of his best friend, Bucky.

Eventually, at the Stark Expo, put on by Stark’s father, Bucky picks up Clara Oswald (Really!) and Steve tries to enlist again, but is found out by Abraham Erskine, who somehow figures out about his failed enlistments at other recruitment centers —and promptly enlists him in a top secret government program and thus he is shipped off to an Army boot camp under the purview of Colonel Chester Philips (Tommy Lee Jones), who heads the program, and the beautiful stiff-upper-lip British Army attaché, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

In Rudy-like manner he quickly proves himself a good soldier and a good man who is brave and willing to think outside the box to find solutions. Oh, and a bit of a romance blossoms between him and Carter. (But you saw that one coming, didn’t you?)

Soon, at the insistence of Erskine, he is picked for the program and taken to a secret lab in Brooklyn where he is given a super-soldier serum and, after taking on a HYDRA saboteur, becomes Captain America —for War Bonds shows.

And is stuck there until he goes on a mission, without higher approval, with Howard Stark and Peggy Carter and single-handedly rescues a group of POWs who become the Howling Commandoes.

About the Movie

This movie is just charming. No matter what its flaws every time I finish it I just get a smile on my face, despite the sadder-than-usual ending. This movie should be utterly bland and yet, it is quite fun.

For one thing, all of the characters feel like a stock character from a 1940s war movie. Steve Rogers is the all-American boy, Peggy Carter is your stiff-upper-lip British officer crossed with 1940s tough gal, and Chester Phillips is your gruff, old American soldier. The same goes for the rest of the Howling Commandoes. Even the villains act like the cheesy villains from a 1940s movie serial or pulp magazine.

Now, this could easily go wrong and result in giving us the cheesiest, blandest, annoying set of characters but it doesn’t. Perhaps because they are so familiar we feel like we know them the moment we see them. This makes the characters, especially the Howling Commandoes, seem incredibly fleshed out. Even though they have only a handful of lines each and probably can’t remember their names without consulting a wiki. Their mannerisms, clothing, and overall demeanor tells us everything we need to know about each of them.

The cinematography, too, adds to the 1940s feel. The scenes depicting Steve Rogers are full of Norman Rockwell-esque colors and lighting.

Like all Marvel movies, this one is a live-action Saturday Morning Cartoon, and it delivers the goods in that department.

But there is one area in which this movie is a tad unique, and that is in the two leads, Steve and Peggy. Throughout the movie, as far as romantic leads go, they are ok. As a couple they are far more interesting than Thor and Jane but not as fun as Tony and Pepper.

But the end of the movie does something that takes them probably the most interesting couple in the Marvel movie universe.

Now, here I’m going to put a SPOILER warning so if you have not seen this movie or Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Avengers 2, or Ant-Man then read no further!

If you’ve seen the movie, or, heck, the ones I just listed, then you might know how it ends. Steve gets stuck in the ice and Peggy grows old without him.

In my opinion, it is after their separation that they became really fascinating. For both of them the other represents the one chance they had for something resembling a normal life, and without each other Two people who were meant to be but never can be.

That added a dynamic to them that was unique to them and unlike any of the other Marvel movie couples. At least for now.


So, in the end, a fun, enjoyable movie.
[+]

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Film Friday: The Godfather (1972)

Back to the 1970’s! Today, I’m going to talk about The Godfather and how my view of it has changed over time. For the longest time, I wasn’t really a fan of this film. It seemed deeply flawed and dull. But I’ve since learned how to watch this movie. Interestingly, more than any other film I’ve seen except Scott Pilgrim v. The World, you need to understand how to watch this film for it to work.
The Godfather was a worldwide phenomena. Baby Boomers LOVE this film. Many of them rate it as one of the ten best films ever. Most film critics agree. I don’t. My generation got to compare it to Goodfellas, and Goodfellas is an amazing film. It does everything right. Moreover, it does everything right that The Godfather does wrong. Consider this...

The characters in Goodfellas are some of the most alive and memorable on film. I can rattle off their names off the top of my head without having seen the movie in years. By comparison, the characters in Godfather are mostly dull, slow, old and forgettable. Many of them feel like they are just waiting to die.
Moreover, Goodfellas is packed with really cool camera work that actually becomes part of the movie. All I need to say is “the mobster introduction scene” and most people will think of that amazing tracking shot where we follow young Henry Hill (now played by Ray Liotta) as he makes his way through the restaurant introducing all the mobsters he knows. This is an incredible piece of work as it goes on and on and you marvel at how the director could have set this up so the camera could weave its way through this tight club to let each of the characters introduce themselves.

Godfather has nothing like this. In fact, Godfather is shot in such an amazingly bland and straight forward manner that it has come to feel a lot like a made-for-tv movie; it suffers that it is shot in an identical style as so many of the miniseries of the time. Indeed, not only is the camera work entirely generic, but there are no risks taken with the lighting, no risks taken with the staging, and no risks taken with the soundtrack.

Compare that with Goodfellas which is the first film outside of musicals to truly integrate the soundtrack as a means to light up a scene and mark the passing of time, or how it uses time warps to give scenes a sense of tension (slow motion killing of Samuel L. Jackson from multiple angles) or how its characters hover in unusual places for interesting shots. Think of the bar scene where the two enemy-camps-to-be are twenty feet apart talking down the bar. Had this been done in Godfather, the characters would all be huddled together center stage. Put simply, there is nothing innovative in Godfather, but Goodfellas is innovative from start to finish.
The Godfather story simultaneously feels too dense and too shallow. It is dense because it digs too deeply into too many characters, which makes the plot feel convoluted and full of filler. Yet, at the same time, the story it tells overall feels very narrow. It feels like it is only barely touching on the mafia world. Goodfellas, by comparison, has a driving plot – the life of Henry Hill, it disdains filler, and it weaves the world of the mafia perfectly into the story through the plot and the narrative. The result is that Godfather feels dull, ponderous, and unfulfilling, whereas Goodfellas feels like a wild ride that comes to a shocking conclusion.

So Godfather sucks, right?

Well, no. Godfather is a decent movie. It’s not special enough that I would mention it here except that this is one of those that has a reputation which requires any film buff to see it. But it is a decent movie.
The key to enjoying Godfather is knowing what to look for. When you look at the film from the outside, it seems to be the story of the fall of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) mixed in with his replacement by his son Michael (Al Pacino) and how the family handles that. But that’s not a good way to see this film. If you try to understand the film in that way, it lacks focus and much of it feels like fake drama.

The way to enjoy this film is to understand that it is the ironic story of Michael. Michael is presented initially as a sensitive soul who disdains the murderous ways of his family and seems like he would be the savior of his family if only he were in charge. Unlike Vito, who seems tradition bound in a modern world, Michael is modern and practical. Unlike his hothead brother Sonny (James Caan), Michael comes across as a man who would never drag the family into pointless vendettas and can rationally solve any crisis. The only knock on Michael is that no one is sure he has the strength to issue ugly orders that may need to be issued because he is such a sensitive soul.
But events slowly thrust Michael into the role of head of family. Vito is nearly killed for refusing to embrace the modern world. Sonny is killed because he’s a hothead who doesn’t even know when to lay low. What’s more, the family finds itself betrayed by those who hide behind the family’s tradition of loyalty.
Finally, we get Michael. He’ll save the day, right?

Well, when Michael takes over, he brings an analytical approach that at first rubs the others wrong. It seems like Michael will now get the chance to modernize the family and end the vendettas. He will run the family with logic and dispassion. Only, this doesn’t seem to work. His logic comes across as weakness and it seems like Michael fails to recognize that the other mobsters are truly despicable people who will forsake their own good for the things that Michael has rejected.

But logic is not static. And once Michael understand this, his dispassionate logic tells him to kill everything that stands in his way, without mercy or remorse. In so doing, he splits the family and becomes the brutal tyrant who has ruined his life by becoming everything he hates. We know he can never be happy again, nor can anyone else in the family. We also know that his actions will eventually destroy the family.
If you understand the movie in this manner and watch for it, then the plot will move much more smoothly and the things that seem random or like filler in the lives of Vito and Sonny suddenly take on meaning. And ultimately, this becomes a rather interesting character study. It’s still nowhere near as good as Goodfellas, but it is a decent movie that is worth seeing.

[+]

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Toon-a-rama: Minions (2015)

We’re taking a break from the 1970’s tonight.

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed Minions quite a bit. It was a solid movie with some good laughs and a few memorable moments. It did some clever things and it made me like the Minions even more than I did after the Despicable Me films. Now let me tell you what disappointed me, and let me do it by comparing Minions to Wreck-It-Ralph.

For my money, Wreck-It-Ralph is the best animated film in a very long time, if not ever. It is nearly perfectly written. It is beautifully drawn. And it does all the things the best stories ever do. Indeed, let me explain what makes it such a special film.
Several things make Ralph such an amazing film. What underlies them all, however, is the nearly perfect writing. First of all, the story idea is brilliant. The idea that video characters have these real lives once the arcade shuts down is super creative. The only thing I’ve ever seen with a similar concept is Toy Story, but the characters in Toy Story are much narrower because their lives revolve around being toys, whereas the characters in Ralph are more like real people, complete with neuroses and infighting and different levels of self-awareness. This makes for a much richer world with many more possibilities. They are also capable of a much wider range of emotions, which make them more interesting.

Indeed, Ralph is much more interesting than Woody because Ralph is not the archetype Woody is. Ralph is a flawed character who is unhappy with himself and must figure out what he truly believes. By comparison, Woody just needs to protect the other toys. Because of this, there is never a moment where you feel genuine emotion for Woody, but I guarantee you that you will cry when Ralph decides to sacrifice himself and he repeats the Bad Guy Affirmation with a whole new meaning to let the audience know what has motivated him:
“I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be, than me.”
Minions sadly, doesn’t have great characters. Yes, the three lead minions are funny and you like watching them, but there’s little you get out of them in the way of emotions. (The humans are, frankly, dull.) Why? Because they don’t grow. Ralph began as a villain with a hole in his soul. He tried to fill that hole in all the wrong ways and found himself a failure, seemingly doomed to be the same miserable Ralph forever. But then he finally comes to realize how to fill that hole, but doing so requires him to give up his life to save a little girl. His moment of epiphany is also a moment of tremendous tragedy. That’s why you cry.
The Minions never have that. There is no hole within them. There is no epiphany. And there is nothing to suggest that any losses they suffer matter in the least. So while the characters are fun and funny, they are ultimately emotionally empty.

Just as importantly, the humor in Ralph is just perfect. Every joke seems to fit the situation perfectly. And what helps cause that is that the culture references are done right. Cultural references have become the go-to form of humor, but few do them right. To do them right, you need to do what Ralph does.

In Ralph, the references are much more personal in nature. These references tended to be shared experiences rather than generic cultural references, e.g. recognizing the way characters slid along walls on the PS2 or the secret code on the Coleco or the difference between low rez and high rez worlds. All of those were things that gamers got because they were things we laughed about along the way. By comparison, bad films simply provide cultural references that anyone can get from watching a History Channel or MTV show about the particular period. They are the most obvious iconic moments of an era, so everyone can get the joke, but they means nothing to anyone. The Ralph references, on the other hand, invoke the hours of game play we experienced and the things we laughed about with our friends. It is the difference between a loving trip down memory lane versus a dull read through a history book.
Minions, unfortunately, is full of these generic references. For example, the film takes place in the 1960’s, so you will see a reference to a much referenced Beatles album cover. You will recognize it immediately, as will everyone else, but it will have no personal meaning to you. What’s more, these references aren’t even tied to the story in any meaningful way, they just appear. It’s a lot like a David Letterman joke where he makes some reference, smirks like a jackass, and let’s his gullible audience pretend that he told a joke when all he really did was make a reference... the Emperor’s New Clothes phenomena.

Ralph never does that. Its references fit the action perfectly and they always result in a punch line. They become how the point to the scene gets across, rather than just appearing as an aside.
What’s more, the jokes in Ralph are deeply layered. Consider the line where Ralph angrily denounces Pac-Man as “that cherry chomping dot muncher.” To kids, the visual speaks for itself as Pac-Man eats dots and cherries; indeed, Ralph has previously stolen a cherry from him. But adults also recognize this as a double reference to giving oral sex to a female... something the kids will never get. Notice too how perfect the reference is too that it describes Pac-Man entirely accurately yet uses virtually the exact words used for the oral sex reference. This reference is so perfect that it’s almost as if Pac-Man’s choice of foods was intentionally chosen to make the sexual reference. That is inspired writing!
Putting all of this together, in Ralph, you can laugh at the reference, if you get it, or at the joke if you don’t. And if you get the reference, then you can also enjoy the cleverness of how they worked the reference into the story, how they often twisted it slightly to fit the film, and the cleverness of how they turned the reference into a joke the kids get even if they don’t get the real reference. That’s a lot of humor packed into each joke. Minions had none of that. You either got the reference or you didn’t. There was no joke to go along with it, except that the Minions inserted themselves into the reference. There was no dual meaning either, with maybe only two exceptions (both visual jokes). Ultimately, the difference because of this is that you will laugh for many reasons at everything Ralph pokes fun at, whereas you will just recognize the things Minions references but you will feel no attachment to them.
This is what bothered me. Minions was fun and interesting, though it had the air of an Austin Powers copy, but it was ultimately very shallow and unsatisfying. It was good, but not great with only a couple memorable moments and nothing that raised emotions. Ralph on the other hand, grips you, makes you smile, digs deep into your memory and pulls out strong emotions.

Studying Ralph could have helped Minions a lot.

[+]

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Film Friday: The Sting (1973)

The Sting is one of my favorite heist films, though I can’t honestly say that it holds up today as a heist film. For that, it is too slow, too simple, and too obvious. What makes this film such a joy to watch despite this, however, is watching Paul Newman, Robert Shaw and Robert Redford try to outwit each other.


Robert Redford is Johnny Hooker, a small time grifter during the Great Depression. As the story opens, Redford cons a man out of the money he is carrying. It turns out to be $11,000. Even worse, it turns out that the money belongs to crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Lonnegan kills Redford’s partner in retaliation and sends out his winged monkeys to kill Redford.
Redford flees to Chicago, where he meets Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). Newman is a once-great conman who is now hiding from the FBI. Redford and Newman decide to work together to pull off a phony off-track betting scam known as “the wire” to get even with Lonnegan.

How this works is that Redford will entice Lonnegan into the scam by pretending that he works for Newman. Newman is running an illegal off-track betting parlor. But Redford has a way to supposedly defraud his boss Newman, by getting the results of the races phoned to him by a Western Union employee before the race gets called over the radio. How exactly they will use this to trap Lonnegan and then to escape his clutches, I will leave for you to discover. Suffice it to say that there are many twists and turns and many of the characters you are shown turn out not to be who they claim to be.

Why This Film Is Worth Seeing

It’s actually difficult to tell you why The Sting works. The reason for this is that The Sting worked for a different reason in 1973 than it works today. Let me explain.
Heist movies are rather a specialized set of films. What you need are the coolest actors of the generation, some sort of scheme that sounds impossible except for the extraordinary expert skills of the “good guys,” a bad guy who is bad enough to make the “good guys” (who are usually shady thieves) seem nice, and a lot of twists. Fortunately, you can cheat on all of this and your audience won’t care, so long as everything is hyper-stylized to be as cool as possible.

In 1973, heist films were still relatively new and unsophisticated. Prior to this, you had films like Ocean’s 11 (1960) which followed this formula, but the twists were mild, and The Italian Job (1969), which wasn’t stylized and didn’t really have the kind of cool cast typical of modern heist films. The Sting was really the first film to put it all together, and in 1973 this film must have seemed amazing. For the first time, you had a cool cast of near-superhero conmen, a villain you truly hated, a cool stylized plot, unforeseeable twist after twist (at a time when twists were rare), and an iconic soundtrack. That is why this film was so popular.

Over time, however, heist films have become much more sophisticated. The schemes have become more complex, the twists have become tighter, and as a whole, these films have adopted a much faster pace and greater energy. Compared to modern twist films, The Sting feels slow, simple and lazy.
But the thing is, this film stands up in the modern era for a different reason. What makes The Sting work today is the relationship of the characters and the performance of the actors. Newman is amazing as the ultra-cool conman. He’s so good in this role that he stands up there with Frank Sinatra in the pantheon of cool, and watching him on screen keeps making me wish he had made more movies. His relationship with Redford, which continues here from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, shows amazing chemistry.
Newman and Shaw have equally amazing chemistry, though it’s more anti-chemistry. Indeed, Shaw is pure menace and he and Newman truly come across as if they hate each other. What’s more, Shaw does such a good job of making you hate him with little things like being huffy and snippy, that you come to loath him on a personal level and you want to see him brought down. You relish seeing him tricked.

Redford is really good in this too, though he shows again that he is a lightweight compared to Shaw and Newman. He is the pretty boy actor of his generation next to two of his generation’s finest giving some of their best performances. Fortunately, as with Three Days of the Condor where he played a perfectly fitting role of an outmatched amateur, here he plays the perfectly fitting role of the arrogant grifter who doesn’t realize how far out of his league he really is. In other words, the role fits him, which lets his acting style work.
It is the relationship of these three and how they keep gaming each other throughout which makes this film such a joy to watch. It’s not the scheme, which is rather simplistic and somewhat dull once you know the twists. It’s not the feel of the movie itself either, as what was stylized and cool in 1973 feels almost made-for-TV lame today. But the tricky interaction of these amazing actors is just not something you can find anywhere else nor can you find it duplicated anywhere else.

That is what makes this film such a classic.

[+]

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Toon-a-Rama Tuesday: Inside Out (2015)

By Kit

Inside Out feels like a return to form for Pixar. After a run of movies that, whatever their merits, seemed to lack the Pixar Touch, we have Inside Out. Which, like all the great Pixar movies of the 2000s, gives us the full gamut of our emotions while weaving a story that imparts valuable lessons. In this case, it is a parable on the importance each of our emotions, even our “negative” ones, play in making us well-rounded, emotionally healthy human beings.

The Plot

Inside Out is about an 11-year old girl named Riley and the 5 emotions that live inside her head (along with everyone else’s): Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Their job is to take care of you. They operate a little control panel inside the “Headquarters” room governing your reactions to the world around you, fear keeping you out of danger, disgust keeping you from being poisoned (“physically and socially”), Joy keeping you happy, etcetera.

So far, Riley’s life has been pretty happy, largely due to Joy’s work as the leader of the 5 emotions. She has a good relationship with her family and friends, she’s honest, and, due to living in Minnesota, is an avid hockey fan, even playing on the local kids’ hockey team. For the most part, the other emotions are kept in check, with Anger, Disgust, and Fear never taking too much control. Only Sadness (The Office’s Phyllis Smith) is kept away, largely because Joy (Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler) does not want her dour attitude dampening how happy things are for Riley.

However, as anyone who knows story-telling can predict, the pleasant life is disrupted when Riley and her family move to San Francisco, leaving behind her friends and her life in Minnesota for a world of dead rats and broccoli-pizzas. Joy tries to keep things happy but in an empty house with a very-late moving van and a dad who is busy with work, it becomes increasingly difficult.

Soon, a fight of-sorts between Sadness and Joy that causes them to be sucked out of the headquarters and sent into the maze of Long Term Memory. Thus Joy and Sadness are forced on a journey to headquarters taking them all over Riley’s mind while Fear, Disgust, and Anger must take the helm

Why it’s Great

Now, you may or may not have noticed this, but in that description of the plot nowhere did I mention a villain. That is because there is not one. Instead, it is natural obstacles, the choices the 5 emotions and RIley make in response to those obstacles, and the consequences of those choices that drive the plot. Bad decisions create obstacles while good decisions remove or overcome them. The closest the movie comes to a villain would be a clown when she was little, but even he only appears for a few minutes.

This means the tension is not a simple “Will they escape Villain X” but “Will they learn the lessons they need to learn in time to make the right choices?” They are the makers of their own misfortune. If they want to make it back, they have to grow.

Further, the decisions of the 5 characters, and thus Riley, make sense because of the way the 5 emotions are drawn. The emotions each of the five represents are reflected in their personalities. Joy is a happy, eager, go-getter who is always ready to find the good in things, Anger is a hot head who wants to rush in and put his foot down in reaction to any slight, and Fear sees danger everywhere.

Thus, each of the characters act in ways that are natural and their choices, whether comical or serious, make sense even when they cause problems. For example, Joy’s insistence on keeping Riley happy all the time and her unwillingness to let Sadness take the helm even when she is needed makes sense in light of Joy’s personality but it makes it harder for Riley to adapt to the difficult circumstances caused by the move.

And all of this occurs against the backdrop of a beautifully imagined world, reminiscent of a video game The Sims, but without the sanctimonious “satire” —and smarter. You have Personality Islands branching off from the headquarters, you have memory balls formed from your life experiences, both big and small, with “Core Memories” being the big ones, and a variety of theme park-like lands such as “Imagination Land’ and “Dream Pictures”, a studio where her dreams are “filmed” and “broadcast” live to headquarters.

The 5 main character, as I mentioned above, are well drawn and, I should add, fantastically voiced. I already mentioned Poehler and Smith, who are both great, with Poehler giving a delightful cheer to her role and Smith providing a modern-day, blue Eeyor-like character, but special mention should go to the other 3 as well, Bill Hader as Fear, Mindy Kaling as Disgust, and Lewis Black as Anger.

Hader’s Fear is fun and Mindy Kaling is great as a Disgust who is modeled after that somewhat snooty high school queen who always knows the best fashion. But my favorite was Lewis Black. Yes, you read that right, Lewis Black is in this one, and he is excellent. In fact, the animation captured his mannerisms so well you’ll wonder if it was rotoscoped.

The only flaw I can think of is that Riley is not the most interesting character, as she seemed to be drawn to be a very, very normal, average girl to the point of, ironically, lacking a real and identifiable personality. But the same sort of goes with the rest of the human characters. It is a bit like the Toy Story Trilogy, where Andy and his mom were beyond bland but it didn't matter because the focus was on the toys. Though Riley and her parents play a much larger part in Inside Out the story than Andy and his mom, the focus is still on the small main characters who we are following, so the film works.And, given what works works brilliantly, this is a minor quibble.

This is a fantastic movie and a must-see. It reminds us of how far Pixar, and film in general, including animation, can take us into the depths of the human heart and mind. It touches on fascinating ideas about how our emotions are needed to make us whole, ideas that afterwards can result in some meaningful contemplation by oneself or discussion with others, particularly children. And it does this while telling a fun and touching story about 5 memorable characters.

It’s a Pixar Classic.

[+]

Monday, July 20, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Thor (2011)

By Kit

Sorry for the long wait, folks. Last week was rather hectic. Forgive me if I come late. If I run out of days in the summer I might continue it next year or continue it into the fall as Marvel Movie Mondays or something. We'll see.

Thank you to everyone for your support so far. This is my first time doing a series like this and I know my delays have tested your patience. So, thank you.

Anyway, on to Thor.


A long time ago, when Marvel still released movies via Paramount instead of Disney, the Frost Giants from Jotunnheim waged war upon mankind and threatened to unloose a second Ice Age. However, they were stopped by a race called the Asgardians, they are from Asgard, led by Odin (Anthony Hopkins). We flash forward to a ceremony where Thor is receiving his hammer, Mjolnir.

Meanwhile, a group of frost giants are sneaking into Asgard to steal an item that Odin took from Jotunnheim. They are stopped by Odin lickety-split, but, despite Thor’s insistence, he refuses to retaliate by starting a full-on war against the Frost Giants.

Thor meets up with his fellow young Asgardians; his brother Loki, Sif, Fandral, Hogun, and Volstug, and convinces them to join with him in going to Jotunnheim to seek retribution. Loki tries to talk him out of it but eventually agrees. They leave for Jotunnheim and start a brawl which goes well at first until things turn and they are nearly curb-stomped only for Odin to show up and save their hides.

Back at Asgard Thor is banished to Earth, deprived of his powers and his hammer, which is also thrown to Earth with Odin casting a King Arthur-esque spell on it that says only someone who is worthy may wield it. Thor arrives on Earth and is hit by a car driven by Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), who are studying some kind of vortex thing.

Thor is taken to a hospital where he is subdued pitifully (and comically) by a doctor with a sedative. The hammer, meanwhile, has landed in the desert, not far from where he landed, causing a massive crater. A huge crowd soon develops as a bunch of men try to wield it (none are worthy) until SHIELD rolls in led by Agent Coulson from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and sets up a camp there.

After the agents seize Jane's equipment, Thor learns about the hammer and decides to go into the SHIELD compound to retrieve it. He beats up half the guards, which is observed by a by a sniper using a bow-and-arrow codenamed Hawkeye. Thor reaches the hammer to discover he can't wield it and sinks into despair. Foster and Selvig come to retrieve him and Coulson (for some reason) lets him go. Thor, Selvig, Foster, and Darcy start hanging out.

Meanwhile, Loki, who discovers something about his past, may be up to no good. Shocker.

Is it Good?

It’s fun.

Ok, that is not high praise. Saying “It’s fun” in reply to the question, “Is it Good” sounds a lot like saying “She has a nice personality” when asked “Is she pretty.” Re-watching this movie I found it was not as good as I remembered it, but it was still fun.

Let me explain the problem.

Unlike other movies which ramp up the tension in the main plot in every scene with bombastic action this movie took a different approach. We have a lot of action in the first and third acts but the Second Act, aside from the scene where he punches through a dozen SHIELD agents to retrieve Mjolnir, is mostly humor and character development —or, rather, attempts at the two.

The second act of Thor is basically one, long fish-out-of-water Rom-com about a Norse God.

Actually, come to think of it, the whole movie Thor is just that. You have the female lead, her female friend, her parent figure, and the handsome, dashing young man who occasionally appears shirtless. It’s Kate & Leopold but with a slightly more interesting ending (the very end). Someone should do one of those mash-up trailers, you know, like the one that guy did to make The Shining look like a family comedy, but instead make Thor look like some cheesy Romantic Comedy.

Which means that your enjoyment of this movie will be whether you enjoy a romantic comedy built around a Marvel comics character and whether you think there is any chemistry between Thor and Jane Foster. (I found them ok in this movie)

Now, why didn’t I like it this time?

When I first saw it, I loved it. Now? Eh. I enjoyed seeing the God of Thunder getting tased and hit with a car, among other injuries. But now, I think I have seen it so many times that the jokes, which are for the most part, ok, were just not as funny as they used to be. Or maybe I was not in the right mood.

But you may enjoy it, again, I did the first time I saw it.

Interestingly, I still prefer the middle section to the opening and the climax. The opening has always been rather boring for me. Heck, the fight scene in the middle when he storms the base is, not only the best fight scene in the movie, but by far the best scene in the movie, though that might largely be because of Hawkeye and Coulson. On second thought, it might be one of the best fight scenes in a Marvel movie. Period.

Anyway, that’s about it. The Cast is good. Idris Elba is awesome as Heimdall. Ditto with Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Hiddleston as Loki. Hemsworth is Thor. The girl from Two Broke Girls is good.

So, in sum, right now I’d rank it low on the list. Maybe at the bottom. Of course, the list won’t be finished until I finish the Summer of Marvel (and the clock is ticking).

The Summer of Marvel will return on Monday with Captain America: The First Avenger!

“We drank, we fought, he made his ancestors proud.”

[+]

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Film Friday: The Exorcist (1973)

When is a terrifying horror movie not a horror movie? When it’s one of the greatest films of all time and it was made in the 1970’s. As we’ve mentioned before, the films of the 1970’s were different. They tended to be contemplative and involved solid storytelling rather than being about quick emotional triggers. The jokes took time to develop. Love was the goal, not sex. And when it came to scary movies, filmmakers strove for building psychological terror rather than quick shock. The movie that demonstrates this best was The Exorcist.

The Plot

The Exorcist begins with a character you won’t even see again until near the end of the film. The film starts with Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) on an archeological dig in Iraq. In a scene that involves more sights and sounds than words, you see Merrin uncover an amulet which resembles a demon Merrin defeated in an exorcism years ago. The exorcism lasted several days and nearly killed Merrin. The demon he exorcised was called Pazuzu.
The movie then switches to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is here to film a movie at the Georgetown University campus. Her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) plays with a Ouija board and soon strange things begin to happen at their home. These are very minor at first. In fact, they are mistaken as just being rats. But soon Regan begins to show signs of potential mental illness. MacNeil has her daughter evaluated by every specialist she can find, but none of them has an answer. They finally suggest an exorcism as a sort of placebo because Regan has begun to claim she is possessed.

As this story progresses, we simultaneously meet Father Damien Karras. Karras is a priest and a psychiatrist. He is a firm believer in modern science and he disbelieves things like exorcism. In his story, Karras's mother dies without Karras being able to help her and that causes him to lose his faith in God.
With her doctors having told her to seek an exorcism, MacNeil seeks out Karras, whom she has seen at the film set. She now believes that Regan is possessed and that Regan has killed her director Burke Dennings. Karras tries to dissuade her from pursuing exorcism, but ultimately agrees to see Regan. He meets with Regan several times and starts to believe that she may actually be possessed, even though the demon within her gives both evidence of his existence and evidence that he is being faked by Regan. Ultimately, however, Karras decides to do the exorcism.
To do this, he needs the permission of the Church. The Church assigns Merrin to help Karras. They then do the exorcism, which involves several truly iconic moments in film.

What Made This Film So Special

The Exorcist is perhaps the best example of how 1970’s films were different than today because there are so many films we can compare to it. Indeed, you can’t really find a modern exorcism movie which isn’t essentially a direct copy of The Exorcist. Yet, all of them fail to live up to the original. And the reason all the imitators fail, despite having so many advantages, such as having a success to study and the benefit of being able to go further in terms of effects and scares with modern audience, is exactly what makes The Exorcist the great film it is.
Unlike the modern copies, The Exorcist takes its time, but it does so with a purpose. This is something too many modern directors don’t understand: time does not equal drama, careful use of time does. Consider the sequence where Pazuzu possesses Regan. This begins so slowly that the audience could be forgiven for not even knowing what is happening at first. Indeed, at first, it seems like a game where Regan is talking to an imaginary friend over the Ouija board, and then MacNeil thinks there are rats in the ceiling. Soon, Regan’s behavior starts to grow stranger. At this point, the film cleverly leaves the door open for this being either something demonic or simply Regan having a mental condition or possibly a seizure condition. At the same time, the director slowly isolates MacNeil. By the time we know for sure, MacNeil has no friends outside her home and Regan is showing supernatural signs of being a prisoner in her own body... she has become bait for Merrin and Karras.
All of this is vital because the point to this story is not the possession itself, it is the horror caused by the possession. Specifically, it the horror MacNeil faces as her daughter succumbs to a condition MacNeil cannot treat which terrifies us as we translate it to our own children. It is the horror of being Regan who becomes a prisoner in her own body which makes us shudder at being in her condition. It is the horror Karras feels when Pazuzu taps his guilt over his mother and what Karras must do to save Regan which makes us sick as we ask if we could do the same thing. That is where this film works and it is through the slow build that the film makes this real. The modern copies don’t get this. They think the horror comes from making the demon seem as evil as possible, but the demon is irrelevant here... a mere Macguffin. Indeed, this film could almost end with the possession being faked and be just as terrifying because it sells us a drama of a mother, a little girl, and a priest who endure extreme suffering. The copies would be a joke without the demon, since that’s really all they offer.
What's more, another key distinction is that this film actually cares about the character stories. Consider Karras’s issue with his mother. We are essentially given an entire movie about that story before Karras ever meets with Regan. The reason is that we are meant to be pulled into who this man is and what his problems are long before we are shown the monster who will exploit his weakness. The copies generally replace this entire movie of story with a montage of someone the priest loves dying and then the priest telling his boss that he’s lost his faith. That gives you the form, but nowhere near the substance of The Exorcist which is why you can’t even remember the names of the copy-cat priests, but you remain haunted by Damien Karras’s story long after you have seen the film.

This film worked because it was a story about several people who endure horrific choices and incredible suffering. It was not a film about two priests fighting a demon. That is what makes this film so unforgettable, so re-watchable, and why none of the copies have ever approached its quality.

[+]

Friday, July 10, 2015

Summer of 70s: Superman: The Movie (1978)

By Kit

"You will believe a man can fly." —movie tagline

Remember when DC made fun superhero movies? None of that angst and moody stuff, just sheer fun at a movie theater? And Marvel was struggling just to get a (watchable) movie out? Well, today’s Summer of 70s pick, Superman: The Movie, is the quintessential fun superhero movie. It is also progenitor of the superhero movie genre. All of the great superhero movies came after it. Burton’s Batman, Raimi’s Spider-man, Nolan’s Dark Knight Saga, and all the Marvel movie series owe their existence to this movie.

The Plot

I’m going to be brief. Moreso than usual.

The movie begins on Krypton, where Jor-El on the planet Krypton warns his fellow members on the Council of Krypton that the planet is going to explode and they must leave it immediately. You know the story, they refuse to listen so he and his wife decide to save their only son, Kal-El by sending him to the planet Earth.

He arrives on Earth where he is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who realize he is very special when hee, a 3-year old, lifts Jonathan’s truck up with his bare hands. At age 18 he is already showing powers and after Jonathan Kent dies of a heart attack he leaves. At Jonathan’s funeral he says, “All those things I could do, and I couldn’t save him.”

He then journeys to the Fortress of Solitude where takes lessons from Jor-El, learning about various things and leaves it in 12 years later dressed as Superman. He arrives in Metropolis where he takes a job as a reporter alongside Lois Lane, played by Margot Kidder, who finds him to be a nice but strange man but falls head-over-heels with his Superman alter-ego when he saves her from falling to her death out of a helicopter. An act which turns Superman into a hero and, since he has a crush on Lois, gives her an interview and, afterwards, takes her flying.

Meanwhile, the criminal mastermind Lex Luthor is plotting the crime of the century, that involves buying lots of land in the middle of California and hijacking a nuclear warhead.

Why It Works (And is Still Awesome 35+ years on!)

This movie has problems that detractors love to list, the two biggest being Superman being over-powered at the end and possibly the handling of Lois Lane. And I can see their criticisms, but I don’t care because the movie works.

First, the cast is iconic. They fit their roles to a T. It has been said a thousand times but I have to say it again, Christopher Reeve is Superman. He moves deftly between Clark Kent and Superman, making you believe that (1) they are the same person and (2) people could actually be fooled by it. Unlike Superman Returns, they don’t need a scene to point it out.

Margot Kidder nails Lois Lane. In the hands of any other actress (and a lesser director) Lois Lane would’ve come across as little more than a ditzy air-head who misspells words and falls madly in love with the first superhero she sees but Kidder and Donner give her something else. Instead we get a woman who is a brilliant reporter, going to many lengths to get a story (sometimes to her own physical detriment) and often so focused on getting the story and telling it that little details, like proper spelling and keeping her eye on the road, just slip her mind completely.

The villain is great. Hackman’s Lex Luthor is a brilliant criminal mastermind, but he’s also vain, egotistical, and arrogant and every bit of it comes through in Hackman’s performance. He’s a man in love with his own brilliance. He’s stuck in a world full of little minds who can’t appreciate his genius.

The supporting cast is also good. Marlon Brando brings a weight to his role as Jor-El, Ma and Pa Kent have a warmth and kindness to them, Chief Perry White of the Daily Planet is what you think of when you think of a boisterous and brash newspaper editor (who has some funny scenes), and Luthor’s two not-very-bright henchman, Otis and Miss Tessamacher, are fun to watch and their comedic chemistry with Hackman is perfect.

I could probably write a whole book One thing that is overlooked is just how funny this movie is, the scenes at the Daily Planet have the snappy dialogue reminiscent of movies like His Girl Friday. And the movie was made back when filmmakers still framed their shots theatrically, which gives the movie a bit of an epic feel. Something directors don't do anymore.

Now, before I hit the movie’s two biggest flaws, I want to say something about John Williams score. A great score cannot save a movie, if it could, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld would be ranked on AFI’s list of Top 100 Films, but it can give a good movie a nice boost. A good soundtrack for a good movie is a lot like the whipped cream on a milk shake; it makes something is already enjoyable and add an extra layer of delight.

And this score, well, there is no other way to say it, the moment you here the theme blare out in full orchestra in the opening credits to the word “Superman” you want to tie a red towel around your neck and zoom around like a little kid pretending to be Superman. As cheesy as it sounds, this score makes you want to cheer. It is hard to think of a score in recent memory that actually makes you want to cheer like this one does.

Another home run for America’s grand maestro.

The Two Big Flaws

A two flaws, both contain MAJOR SPOILERS so don’t continue if you don’t want the movie spoiled. Many people complain about Lois’ reporting of Superman’s inability to see through lead and Superman turning back time by flying around the world super-fast. For the first, yeah, I don’t have much of a defense, today it makes both of them seem rather dimwitted (criminals read papers too, you know?) but it’s a minor gripe compared to how much of the movie works. It is also worth remembering that this movie was really the prototype superhero movie.

As for the latter, I have some mixed thoughts on it. In terms of its depiction of Superman as the comic book character, it is very stupid (why doesn’t Superman do this more often?) but in terms of the story that the movie was telling, I think it works. During that scene Superman stops a nuclear missile and then proceeds to not only save a school bus, stop a flood by pushing rocks in front of the surge, and single-handedly stop the Western coast of California from falling into the ocean.

The scene builds up the idea that Superman is becoming a god-like being who can seemingly bend nature to his will. Then he discovers Lois is dead. And what happens next was also foreshadowed when he told Martha Kent at Jonathan’s funeral, “All those things I could do, and I couldn’t save him.” Again, he can stop a state from falling into the Pacific but he can’t save someone he loves. He decides he will, and bends the laws of

He is not longer god-like, he is a god.

Lois even mentioned during the scene when she and Superman are flying together when she describes flying with Superman like “holding hands with a god.”

So it depends on whether you like this particular handling of Superman or not.

"You've got me? Who's got you?"
[+]

Monday, July 6, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Iron Man 2 (2010)

What can I say about Iron Man 2? I liked it. Hmm. Now what am I going to talk about for the rest of the column?


Some dude in Russia, Anton Vanko, sees the disclosure on the news that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is Iron Man. He starts building his own arc reactor, which is the thing that powers the Iron Man suit, so he can prove that Iron Man isn’t invincible.

Back in the US, Stark grows despondent and reckless when he realizes that he is dying because the reactor in his suit is poisoning him. He hands his massive company over to his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and he starts having wild parties and doing stupid(er) things. He even decides to compete in the Monaco Grand Prix. During that race, however, he gets attacked by Vanko. Stark defeats Vanko, but Vanko attracts the attention of Stark’s rival Justin Hammer, who breaks Vanko out of jail so he can build a line of armored suits for his company.
In the meantime, Stark gets drunk and angers everyone at a party he throws. He needs to be subdued by Air Force Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who confiscates an armored suit for the government; so far, Stark has refused to part with them. At the same time, Stark learns that his new assistant is really Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and he meets Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of SHIELD, who claims Stark’s father was a member of SHIELD and wants him to join too.

Soon, Stark cures the problem of the arc reactor poisoning him. He then learns that Hammer has created heavily armed drones he intends to show off for the government, but Vanko arrives and they fight to end the movie.

Why I Liked This Movie

Hmm. Ok, stick with me. By and large, I’ve found that I like sequels better than originals in the “franchise” genre, i.e. the genre where “properties” are put on film with the hope of being able to milk an existing fan base through three or four movies and some spin-offs. The reason is simple. The first film in every franchise series is invariably an origin story, especially in the comic book universe, and origin stories suck. It’s in the sequel that the writers normally first get the chance to offer real stories.
Iron Man 2 is not an origin story. The writers don’t waste time trying to explain who Tony Stark is or how he ended up in the suit. Instead, they get to focus on the next step in the story. That gives this film an instant boost because it adds the element of the unknown because the story isn’t following a tired formula that everyone follows. This is unchartered water.

What’s more, the Marvel universe is much more prone to interesting movies than the regular comic book fare because Marvel likes to delve into the heroes in the story and what makes them tick. That shifts a significant portion of the screen time from seeing useless CGI punches being tossed to seeing the writers make the characters interact. The end result of that is that the characters tend to be much more interesting, the dialog is less transactional (“I will stop you now”) and more about who these people are and how they interact, and you end up caring more for the characters.

Trust me, nothing spells “soul death” like watching Superman trade punches with another cardboard villain who can’t be harmed physically for forty f*cking minutes!!! Arggg! Fortunately, you will never find that in Marvel films (excluding the Hulk crapfests): “Hulk smash pixels until you slit your wrists with popcorn bucket!”
Anyways, Iron Man 2 is a movie I enjoyed for these reasons. It is populated by real characters with different personalities and different goals whose interactions are often endearing or humorous. There were few fight scene to bore me, none were all that long, and none of them felt really pointless. The actors were perfect too.

Paltrow is an excellent foil for Downey Jr. Cheadle evokes a lot of sympathy because you know he’s a good guy and he’s being held back by Downey’s irresponsibility. Johansson is hot... and is in this movie. Rockwell is slimy as Hammer and you really despise him. Even Vanko, who is rather clichéd, is enough of a brooding presence that you at least get a sense of menace whenever he is on screen – too often villains just prance around and act melodramatically; not so here.
Ultimately though, the guy who sells this movie is Downey Jr. Stark comes across as simultaneously inspiring and annoying as hell. You want to punch the guy. He’s such a genius with such a potential to save the world, and yet he acts like a spoiled child who is more interested in fart jokes than achieving his potential. THAT SAID, HOWEVER, (here is the key), he’s not a slacker. Stark is an ass and an annoyance, but he’s also a brilliant scientist with a strong sense of responsibility. He works hard. He bathes. He does take his responsibilities seriously... too seriously at times actually. Nothing about him is the pathetic modern slacker that these films jam into the hero roles (cough cough Green Lantern, Green Hornet, etc.). He really is a hero.
Unfortunately, he’s also a bit of a control freak in the worst possible sense. Indeed, Stark doesn’t trust anyone else to handle the suit and he is rather fascist in his outlook, thinking that he can impose order on the world to make it a perfect place.

All of this makes him a genuine contradiction and easily the most complex and unpredictable character ever written in the comic book film world... and Downey Jr. is 100% believable as him. In fact, thinking about it, I can’t imagine another actor who could handle this role. Most would try to hero-him-up and give him a secret pain which is keeping him from being perfect. Some would slacker him down into Van Wilder. Others simply would never present themselves as having a dark, a-hole side. And others would make him into manic depressive Batman who wants the world to die so its misery ends.

Only Downey Jr. can balance the good with the bad, the responsibility with the obnoxiousness, the self-pity with the nobility, and give us this unique Tony Stark. Only Downey Jr. revels in the complexity and doesn’t try to make Stark into a one-note antihero.

That is why I like this film.

[+]

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Summer of 70's (Bonus Round)

While we’re doing the Summer of 70’s films, I wanted to be sure to mention some films that I would definitely add to the list but which have already been reviewed at the site. Here is a list of those film you should add to your film library:

Soylent Green (1974). This is a great dystopian film based on a very faulty premise. The premise is that the human race would keep breeding and breeding until there are so many of us that the world simply collapses in a dead, polluted mess. Now those who are left are starving, and their leaders have turned to the unthinkable to feed everyone. The story itself is about NYC Detective Thorn who is investigating the death of a food company executive and comes to discover the truth. This film does an excellent job of presenting its mystery and an even better job of making you feel like you are living in this forsaken hell hole.

Vanishing Point (1971). This barely known film is essentially one long car chase. You had a lot of these in the 1970s. What makes this movie work so well is the divine overtones as the hero seems to be guided by a blind radio DJ who can see more than a human could and a fascinating ambiguous ending... plus a great soundtrack.

Alien (1979). This is simply the best horror-science fiction film ever made.

Deliverance (1972). This seemingly simple tale of four city-folk from Atlanta who go rafting on a dying river in hillbilly country effectively defined the urban, rural split that still influences much of our culture and our politics today as the panicked snooty elitists start killing what they think are butt-raping hillbillies... but might not be.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). This musical could be the first true “cult film” and it’s something everyone should see at least once to understand the same subculture that gave birth to modern cos-play.

Rollerball (1975). Perhaps the most conservative film of the 1970s, this film brings a strong warning against collectivism to the big screen by telling us that the collectivists cannot afford to allow a single talented athlete to give people the idea that they can succeed through individual effort.

Smokey and the Bandit (1976). Although seemingly just another car chase film, this film announced to the country that the American South had moved beyond Jim Crow and joined the modern world. I think it is no understatement to say that this film heralded the South’s rise as an economic and political power that rivaled any other part of the nation and saw the sunset of the once-dominant Northeast.

Silver Streak (1976). This film wasn’t really consequential, but it is perhaps one of the top comedies of the 1970s and I would say that it was a high-water mark for Gene Wilder. It was also Wilder’s first collaboration with Richard Pryor.

Make sure to check these out, and enjoy the films! Anything you would add to what we've already reviewed? And why?
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Monday, June 29, 2015

Summer of Marvel: The Incredible Hulk (2008)


By Kit

We're back!

Following up their big-hit Iron Man later that summer Marvel released their attempted reboot of the Hulk. The Hulk had previously been made into a film in 2004 to much disappointment, widely seen as too pretentious and too dreary by many. So in 2008 they decided to add more action and less drama, but still retain some.

Does it work? Let's see.

The Plot

The movie begins with an opening credits montage giving us a little back story on what has happened; Bruce Banner was doing tests for a military project led by General Ross alongside Ross’ daughter, Betty, who he has a thing for. Something goes wrong, he turns into a giant monster, severely injures Betty Ross and is forced to go on the run from General Ross.

The movie then picks up with him in Brazil, working at a factory that bottles a type of green soda (the color green pops up a lot in this movie) and he is well-liked by floor manager who often has him fixing broken-down devices. When he is not working he often works on ways to manage his anger and communicates online with a mysterious Mr. Blue, who might know of a cure.

Unfortunately, a bit of his blood falls into a bottle where it is shipped to America and consumed by Stan Lee, who contracts gamma radiation poisoning/sickness from it, which, after tracking it to the factory it was made, alerts General Ross to Banner’s likely whereabouts. He promptly sends a squad of soldiers led by Russian-born Brit special ops guy Emil Blonsky —neglecting to inform them of Bruce’s unique “condition”.

They go in and try to grab Bruce while a group of local thugs are messing with him. Eventually, both push Bruce far enough that he snaps and you know how that song and dance goes. What follows is a mostly-in-the-dark fight scene (smart decision, I should add) where the Hulk takes out both the local thugs and Blonsky’s soldiers one-by-one. The hulk flees and Bruce soon finds himself waking up in Guatemala (the Hulks runs far) where he decides to head back home to Culver University.

Arriving there he meets up with an old friend who tells him his old girlfriend Betty is dating some guy played by Phil Dunphy from Modern Family. Bruce decides to get into the computer lab and hack in using Betty’s password to get the information on the research back when the experiments went wrong. He does and returns to his old friend’s place —where Betty is there with her boyfriend.They see each other.

Meanwhile Blonsky is filled in by Ross on what Banner was doing, apparently, unbeknownst to him, he was working on trying to re-build the old Super-soldier serum from the 1940s. Things were not going well but he was sure he was onto something so he went ahead with a test and things went wrong or something like that. Blonsky decides he wants a bit of that and Ross agrees.

Meanwhile, Bruce and Betty are catching up at the Quad when the military arrives, having been informed by Betty’s ex-boyfriend. Bruce gets put in a corner and Hulks out and tosses a few humvees like a two-year old tosses little toy cars. That is, until Blonsky arrives who manages to put up a decent fight dodging his blows due to the super-soldier serum until the Hulk eventually knocks him out of the fight, breaking all of his bones. The Hulk then flees with Betty.

After returning to his human form Betty and Bruce decide to travel to New York City to meet up with Mr. Blue, or Samuel Sterns, a.k.a., “The Leader” in the comics (but not yet), in order to see if they can develop a cure. Meanwhile, Emil Blonsky quickly heals and is ready for another go, though now slightly unhinged.

What ensues is a race to get the cure, which has limited success, and Blonsky becoming the Abomination, a Hulk-like monster but with protruding bones , and a fight between the Abomination and the Hulk in Harlem.

Is it Good?

It's a mixed bag.

This movie was a bit better than I remembered it being, though still nowhere near as fun as the rest of the Marvel movie canon. The movie is a mixed bag. It has a strong performance from Ed Norton, the humor, like in all Marvel movies, is very good, and the movie has very fun fight scenes. But outside of that it struggles. The CGI of the Hulk still needs work and the villains are clichéd Hollywood military stereotypes you’ve seen a thousand times before.

First, the lead.

Ed Norton is very good. He gives us a Bruce that is likable but modest and unassuming. After watching this I have to say that he’s a better Bruce than Mark Ruffalo, not that Ruffalo is bad (he’s very good, actually) just that Norton is better.

Unfortunately, when he turns into the Hulk we see the movies first big problem. For reasons of either insufficient tech or insufficient money, the CGI for the Hulk, though a big improvement over 2004, is still not quite up to the level it would be in Avengers, let alone Avengers 2. He still looks a bit too much like a giant Shrek and at times I felt he looked a bit like a green, juiced-up young P.J. O’Rourke for some weird reason. Though, again, it is still an improvement over 2004.

Fortunately, if you can get past the CGI issues, the fight scenes are a lot of fun. The movie builds up anticipation for the Hulk each time, bringing us to the point that we are almost begging for the Hulk to appear, and unleashing him on the whoever has been asking for whooping. And the fight scenes, like with much of the pre-Avengers Marvel movies, are not the over-the-top destruction fests that now seem to dominate the genre. Today, the entire campus would probably be leveled, but here, we just have a simple fight scene on a quad between the Hulk and the military.

On the topic of the military, it is there we come to the movie’s most annoying weakness. This one has a slew of liberal, anti-military, Hollywood clichés.

Here are three questions that popped into my mind while watching the movie:
—Why the hell doesn’t General Ross tell the squad he sends after Banner at the beginning of the movie that the guy they are hunting can change into an enormous green rage monster at the turn of a second? That seems like something you want to bring up in the pre-op briefing. But I’m just a civilian so what do I know.
—Where the hell is the Congressional oversight on this? Two years later in the movie Iron Man 2 Congress would be trying to rip Stark over not letting the government have his suits but General Ross is able to do whatever he wants. Oh, and FYI, in-universe, Iron Man 2 occurs in the same week as this movie.
—On the subject of General Ross doing whatever he wants. Apparently full battalion, with machine guns-armed humvees, is able to just roll onto a college campus? Posse Comitatus Act, anyone? I’m pretty sure that requires at least an act of Congress to approve.

Yeah, this is not the worst handling of the military in a movie but coming on the heels of the fairly pro-military Iron Man and in a film series that has generally been pro-military, it was and still is quite jarring. The only real redeeming factor here is that William Hurt actually gives a pretty decent performance as General Ross, making him into a sort of Captain Ahab who has this mad obsession with the Hulk. You kind of feel sorry for the guy. Kind of.

As for the rest, the humor that is now trademark to the Marvel movies is funny. The side-performances are mostly ok, Liv Tyler is good in some scenes but there were a few I felt she was lacking. There are also some pleasant touches to the 1970s series, the best being the use of the iconic “Lonely Man Theme” as Bruce is traveling to the United States.

So, in all, the movie is ok. Not near the top but if you can get past the still-troubled CGI and the clichéd military then you will probably have a fun time watching it.

Summer of Marvel will return with a review of Iron Man 2, this time written by Andrew Price.

Bruce: "I can't get too excited."
Betty: "Not even just a little excited?"
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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Film Friday: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is an amazing and fascinating film. Normally, I don’t review films that have been written about this much, but this time I think it’s worth it. Close Encounters is the film I think of when people talk about the 1970’s film renaissance, when I think of Spielberg’s real talent, and when I think of films done right. This is a film you should see and appreciate.


Close Encounters involves the convergence of two separate but related stories. The first story unfolds in small vignettes that take their time to explain what is going on. In the first vignettes, a group of men race through the desert to find a collection of World War II era fighter craft, Grumman Avengers, in pristine condition. We don’t know this yet but these are the planes belonging to the doomed Flight 19 which vanished without a trace off of Florida. In the second, the same men find a ship, the SS Cotopaxi (which sank on her way to Cuba), in the sand dunes of the Gobi desert. In the third, an air traffic controller hears two planes report seeing UFOs flying near them. In the forth, the men are in India, where they seek villagers who claim to have seen something in the sky. These villagers provide the men with a series of musical tones which the men conclude are a form of communication.
Each of these vignettes builds the puzzle and brings us to the conclusion that aliens are seeking to communicate with the human race and they have chosen Devil’s Tower, Wyoming as their place of contact.

The second story, which is interspersed between these vignettes, involves Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, an electrical lineman from Indiana. Roy is out looking to fix a downed wire when he has a close encounter which sunburns half his face. This piques his interest and he starts to investigate UFOs. In the process, he meets a single mother named Jillian, who also has had a close encounter. Her son will be kidnapped by the aliens while she is in the house.
As Roy investigates, he becomes increasingly erratic in his behavior. This causes his wife to take their three children and leave him. The specific event that causes her to leave is when Roy starts dumping garbage in their living room so he can build a life-size model of Devil’s Tower. He feels compelled to do this even though he doesn’t even know that it’s Devil’s Tower until he sees a report on the news that the military is evacuating the Devil’s Tower area because of a supposed nerve gas spill. Roy is drawn to the area and, believing the military story to be false, he makes his way there.
At the foot of Devil’s Tower, the two stories converge as Roy is picked up trying to sneak into the area. There the men from the vignettes question him and try to send him away. But Roy escapes and reunites with Jillian, who also has been drawn here. They make their way up the mountain until they find the secret landing base the government constructed. Soon enough, the aliens arrive.

What Makes This Film So Awesome

Close Encounters is an awesome movie. It’s beautiful shot. It’s incredible well written. You really care about these characters. The plot is engaging. The mystery of what is going on is fascinating the first time through and still engaging even when you know how it will turn out. The movie has iconic music and sounds. It has amazing special effects too, blowing away those of today.
The movie is historically interesting too. For one thing, this film allowed science fiction to grow up. Before this, science fiction was about spaceships and laser guns and battling aliens. This was the first film that foreswore that and said that science fiction could be a character drama about how we finally make contact with an alien race. Indeed, the film’s view of realistic aliens as peaceful is essentially groundbreaking.

It’s also historically interesting because of the way it influenced UFO believers. Before this film, UFO abductees all over the world reported seeing very different aliens. But after this film, they all saw the small gray eunuchs with large heads and large eyes. So in a way, this film unified the UFO story, which has made the industry stronger... even though it should be discrediting.

Anyway, what makes this film so fantastic is the way Spielberg handled it. This was probably the film that cemented Spielberg’s empire, coming on the heels of Jaws and being a world wide mega-hit, and the reason why is that Spielberg was at the top of his game. This was Spielberg before he succumbed to commercialism and before he started using shortcuts to generate emotion. This was Spielberg when he took his time and told the story as it should be told.
What Spielberg did so well can be seen in the characters. First, and most importantly, he takes his time. Spielberg never rushes. This is so rare in modern cinema, where every second that can be removed from a film is for various reasons. Secondly, there are no villains. Some want to see the military as villains, but they aren’t. The military chases everyone out of Wyoming and tries to keep Roy and Jillian from getting up the mountain because they want to avoid a chaotic first contact. Notice that they never use violence to stop these people, and there are no armed soldiers or weapons at the landing site. Doing a film without a villain is a rare achievement in modern cinema because it is harder to write conflict without a villain.

The real key, however, is in the wide array of characters who get solid screen time. Roy is the everyman skilled laborer. His wife (Terri Garr) is the frustrated wife. Jillian is the overwhelmed single mom. David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) is a cartographer who is enlisted in the search for clues because he can translate French into English. Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) is a French scientist and specialist in UFOs who leads the search for clues. Other prominent characters include an Air Force officer assigned to Project Blue Book, the Army commander in charge of clearing out Wyoming, air traffic controllers and the pilots to whom they speak, police, co-workers of Roy, Roy’s kids, a UFO crank, the men in charge of communicating with the aliens, and so on. Each of these characters feels real to us because we learn tons about them. In fact, we know more about them than we know about the lead characters in most modern films, and that makes the film feel real.
What's more, Spielberg gives us this wealth of information in only a few clever moments or lines of dialog. Consider Roy’s wife Ronnie. She seems like a loving wife on the surface, but we quickly see that she’s rather lazy, from her wardrobe, and she’s more concerned with appearances than with Roy’s problems as she tries to hide his sunburn and get him to stop talking about it. And, most tellingly, she blows up at Roy at the very moment where he asks her for emotional help. This tells us so much about her and it explains why Roy acts so erratically. As an aside, she would not exist in a modern remake except as an off-screen ex-wife.

Now take Laughlin, who is a sort of narrator for the vignettes. He never tells us anything about his life, except that he was a cartographer who also speaks French. But we soon learn that he’s rather meek, that he’s amazed by what he’s seeing and wants to believe, that he’s a kind man, that he never once worries that the aliens might be a danger, and that he’s rather bright. We learn this in an intensely clever scene where he solves the key mystery. In this scene, Laughlin realizes that the signals sent by the aliens represent coordinates on a map. In most movies, he would blurt this out and the scene would end. But Spielberg doesn’t do this.
Instead, we see Laughlin figure it out. He takes a moment to be sure of what he thinks he’s found. Then, rather than slamming this in the faces of the supposed geniuses who are debating all around him, he politely turns and says, “excuse me.” Then he humbly explains his conclusion. And then, having solved the key mystery, he goes right back to being a simple interpreter. This tells us so much about his character. And again, this is exactly the kind of character films no longer use because they want the main character to handle everything and they don’t care about letting you get to know the minor characters.

In fact, while we are talking about that scene, I think the brilliance of that entire scene deserves mention, as Spielberg converts a scene involving men talking into an action scene. He does this by having all the characters talking over each other and moving their arms around, which gives the impression of motion. Then, rather than grabbing a map, they find an enormous globe, which they free from its holder rather than carry back to their room and they let it roll toward the camera as they chase it. Again, this gives a sense of motion and urgency, and strangely it makes the audience tense as they wait to see if the men can catch the globe, just as it's tense waiting to see if Laughlin can interrupt them to be heard - in a similar moment, Roy is distracted by his wife as the television shows Devil's Tower in the background and it feels very tense as you wait to see if he will turn around in time to see it. Finally, rather than just finding the spot on the map, we watch two fingers trace the longitude and latitude lines until they connect, giving the audience a feeling of a race and a treasure being found, and then suddenly the room explodes in voices again.

The end result is that a scene which essentially only involves some men pondering the meaning of some numbers and looking it up on the map, turns into an action scene with a dramatic punch. Spielberg does this throughout the movie. This is what Spielberg used to do so well and which so few others ever managed to copy - make boring moments into heart-pounding scenes filled with real characters. Sadly, no one does this today. This is why this film is so amazing.


As an aside, notice that the rolling globe and the tracing of lines will appear again in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
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